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Restaurants and other businesses have taken Barilla pasta off the menu after the company's head weighed in on "homosexual" families.

Barilla pasta

Learning from Barilla

Lessons learned from the pasta company's brand fiasco

Barilla boycott
Following Guido Barilla's comments, some restaurants like this one in Chicago began boycotting the company.
Image by Michael Peck
It's said that after legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite called the situation in Vietnam a stalemate in 1968, then President Lyndon Johnson observed that if he'd "lost Cronkite," he'd "lost Middle America." It doesn't really matter who you've lost when The Daily Show goes against you—you're definitely being laughed at.

That comedian Lewis Black would devote an entire "Back in Black" commentary to pasta purveyor Guido Barilla's now-infamous comments about gay families, observing that the Barilla Group chairman "stuck a whole boot-shaped country into his mouth," tells you all you need to know about how much press the matter has gotten. Stand-ups don't make jokes unless they're sure everyone will get them. (Full disclosure: Black also called out the media for its many instances of "hot water" puns in covering the story—a sin we ourselves committed.)

What's to be learned from the scandal, in which Barilla told a radio interviewer that he'd never include a "homosexual" family in an ad campaign, adding that people who didn't like it could go eat someone else's pasta? Kellogg faculty weighed in on the ensuing social- and traditional-media firestorm, which prompted numerous calls for boycotts as well as multiple apologies and a new diversity and inclusion effort from Barilla.

'[S]tay clear of polarizing issues.'

"In most cases, companies are well advised to stay clear of polarizing issues," Daniel Diermeier, Academic Director of the Kellogg Executive Education Crisis Management program, advised in Businessweek. "This can present challenges for multinational companies that operate in multiple countries with diverse values. A comment that hardly raises eyebrows in its home country may create outrage elsewhere."

In fact, Diermeier stressed, companies that find themselves in full crisis mode after such a comment might have avoided it altogether if they'd paid more attention to their reputation-management practice. "The rise of social media, complex global value chains and rising expectations about corporate conduct have all increased the exposure of companies," he wrote. "Also, companies have more at stake as, increasingly, business models are based on building strong brands and maintaining customer trust. Yet, reputation management is still viewed as a subdiscipline of P.R. rather than an enterprise-wide capability to protect and enhance a vital asset."

'[W]hy chase them away over social issues?'

From a brand perspective, Tim Calkins, a Kellogg clinical professor of marketing and an Academic Director of the Kellogg on Branding Executive Education program, concurred, pointing out to The Asbury Park Press that companies have enough of a challenge attracting customers, so why chase them away over social issues?

Calkins used Dodge as an example of how to do values-based marketing, noting that the company was able to target those with a "traditional, rural, conservative" bent without alienating city-dwelling liberals.

"In a way, it's better to say what you are for rather than what you are against," Calkins said.

Which, as the Press writer pointed out, Barilla probably thought he was doing. Until so many hit the boiling point. (Sorry, Lewis.)

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